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Nutrient Pollution

Farmer Story: Central Illinois Farmer Manages Nitrogen Use to Lower Costs, Maintain Yields and Leave Land in Good Shape for his Children

Doug Martin, his wife, Erin, and his parents, Jeff and Jean, operate Martin Family Farms (www.martinfamilyfarms.org) in Mt. Pulaski, Ill. They have been honored several times for environmentally sound farming with awards that include Upstream Heroes from the Conservation Technology Information Center, the Illinois Corn Growers Environmental Action Award, No-Till Farmer Innovator of the Year, and the 2006 Outstanding American Conservation Award from the Farm Service Agency.

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When I’m driving my combine in the fields or reading about new farming methods at home at the end of a long day or showing my children the places where their father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and even their great-great-great-great-grandfather farmed, I’m also thinking about how best to preserve our agricultural heritage for my family.

In fact, I learned the importance of this conservation strategy from my dad, Jeff, who today is my partner in our family’s corn and soybean business that includes about 5,000 acres of Central Illinois farmland.

In practice, our conservation strategy means conserving farmland by continuing to refine the methods that my father initiated. We keep working to manage the amount of nitrogen fertilizer we use and take steps to control runoff. We use strip-till and no-till cultivation to keep the soils healthy and less vulnerable to rain and wind.

That's not just feel-good talk, either. That’s good business.

These methods let us reduce the number of times our tractors must pass back-and-forth on the fields we cultivate. Fewer trips along the corn and soybean rows saves fuel, labor and wear-and-tear on machinery. It lowers our costs by about $8 to $10 per acre. With 5,000 acres, the savings add up quickly.

Back in the 1980s, when I was growing up, my father became very concerned as he watched wind and rain start to sweep away some of our prime topsoil. Unchecked, it would threaten our ability to keep our farming tradition alive. And that worried my father as much as it does me today.

When I’m thinking about how to lower our impact on the environment, I’m keeping our seventh generation of farmers in mind.

Our roots in this business and this community run deep. Our family has been in the Mount Pulaski area for nine generations and I am a sixth generation farmer. We take our heritage seriously. When I’m thinking about how to lower our impact on the environment, I’m keeping our seventh generation of farmers in mind.

But it’s not just about us here in Central Illinois. We’re part of the Mississippi River Basin that touches 31 states. Farmers have become increasingly aware that we can’t allow excess fertilizer to wash into the runoff and contribute to algae blooms that can choke the life out of our waterways all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. Soil and water are essential to our business and our heritage, and we want to conserve both.

While the general public may not know that low-impact tilling and better nitrogen management techniques are gaining more converts, my father and I can see the effect on landowners who had been hesitant to lease their acreage. When they hear about our ecologically responsible practices, it eases concerns.

Of course, no method is perfect for every grower or every field. My father and I still experiment and make adjustments each season, and we network with other farmers to hear about their experiences. We encourage all farmers to learn about and try out these methods. Together, we can safeguard our fields, our finances and the quality of life along our rivers and streams.